November 23, 2018
By Indea Stroeve Rogers
Field scientists, I have decided, are the lucky ones. Unlike a variety of other professions, field scientists have the opportunity to travel to remote places and observe the wonders of the world, to see magnificent environmental beauty and escape boring everyday life, all in the name of science. I had the chance to be one of these lucky field scientists up in the Arctic in August 2018.
I was buzzing with excitement as I boarded the helicopter that was transporting me to the Korean icebreaker R/V Araon, which was waiting in the Bering Sea outside of Nome, Alaska. Not only was this an incredible opportunity to do real science fresh out of my undergraduate degree, but it was also a chance to witness the breathtaking Arctic. The sea-ice landscape and never setting summer sun did not disappoint. It was easy to spend hours outside on deck, or on the bridge watching the sea ice as the ship made its way through the ice, fracturing the ice and making its mark on the Arctic. On sunny days you could stand on the helideck in awe as the sun reflected off the ocean and revealed its true vastness in this harsh landscape. The grease ice would ripple before breaking as the waves passed underneath and polar bear tracks could be followed over ridges and around melt ponds.
Yet, I had to pull myself away since there was lots of work to be done. From day zero, scientists began to unpack instruments and set up labs, from biological labs to analytical chemistry, atmospheric and others. It didn’t matter if it was 1 pm or 4 am, there were people running around busy at work. Although there were a few different research projects being conducted on the Aaron, I was personally assisting the joint UK/Germany Ecolight project. The Ecolight project studies how snow and ice regimes changes impact primary productivity of the Arctic Ocean, as well as zooplankton gazing habits. I learned quickly that sleep is not a priority when doing research. We took ice observations every three hours throughout the day and night, and even had a survey flight until 3:30am in the morning, regardless of ice-camp activities starting at 7am the same day.
From a young age I have been exposed to conversations about climate change and our impact on the planet as a species, but nothing compares to witnessing it in real time and being apart of the research to understand that change. It shocked me how hard it was to find multi-year ice all the way 79 degrees North and to think about all the various species that rely on that ice for survival, from Polar Bears to ice algae. At the beginning of the trip, the sea ice-melting trajectory was on its way to surpass the lowest on record (2012), but slowed considerably in the coming weeks. Is it horrible that in some ways we were hoping to reach a record low in sea ice? It would be dramatic and maybe get people to pay more attention to this region of the world and the general climate change issue. What most people don’t realize is there is actually no land up here, unlike Antarctica. So when the ice is gone that is it. While no new record low was reached, August 2018 ended up as the 7th lowest amount of Arctic sea ice in the 40-year satellite data record.
For those of us who don’t do field research, it can be hard to imagine exactly what the day-to-day life is like on a ship full of crazy scientists. Or how we connect a small salinity measurement of a melt-pond to an overall trend and understanding of our ecosystem. A lot of time is spent talking about how we can solve the world’s problems, and sharing knowledge while becoming like family. There is also a lot of time spent on the logistics required for data collection. With many different research projects taking place in a short amount of time, organization of these projects takes time and patience. Just because there is a plan one day doesn’t mean it will stay the plan the next day. Plans would change at the drop of a hat, especially as weather and ice conditions changed. Coordinating who gets to use what instrument when, how to shuttle both people and gear to remote sites, and making sure people were accompanied by a bear guard at all times on the ice was no easy task. On top of that, the ice floes were constantly moving, so even with the latitude and longitude coordinates of a site you previously found ideal for a remote instrument deployment, you may never find it again. Once out in the field though there was no time to waste, as there was a limited amount of time to collect all the data everyone wanted. If you were not a fast learner you wouldn’t survive. These are a few of the lessons I learned from the field….
- Zip ties are your best friend, they can literally be used on any occasion
- Always keep a wrench in your pocket
- Duct tape is the only thing that works in cold weather
- If you drop a screw in the snow you will never see it again
- Keep your arm away from the exhaustof ice-corers and augers as you will melt a hole through your mustang suit
- Always pay attention to where you are walking, melt ponds and auger holes appear out of nowhere and freezing water in your boots is no fun
- Just because an instrument worked at home or in lab does not guarantee it will work in the field
- Keeping a sense of humor when your whole measurement procedure fails is a must
- Helicopters can land on ice that is a mere 68 cm thick, although it is not advised
The knowledge I have gained from the experience is truly invaluable, I now have a deeper understanding of what doing field science is like and how it connects to our world as a whole. By doing field research with some of the top Arctic scientists, having academic conversations with people from diverse backgrounds, and observing scientists, I feel better equipped for my future in the sciences. A lot of students get deterred from the physical sciences for a variety of reasons, but I can’t help and think that if more students were given opportunities like this one it would encourage more to join the science world. This may be especially important for any young female who wishes to pursue a career involving fieldwork. Out on the sea ice I was able to gain valuable practical skills such as how to properly use a variety of tools like drills, saws, allen wrenches, augers, etc., which made me feel powerful and capable. I hope that other female students get the opportunity to demonstrate how power tools and hard labor in the field is not just for the boys!
Even though there was a bit of a language barrier being on a Korean vessel, everyone was so kind and open to sharing their research and the data collected. There were scientists from eight separate sovereign nations all collaborating with the same goal, it didn’t matter where you were from, we were all here to understand our changing planet. I believe it is imperative for the international community to take a similar approach in tackling climate change and work towards altering our behavior as a species, since the environment doesn’t care what country you are from. I aim to be apart of this effort as I daydream about the freezer full of endless ice cream on the Araon ship. I will miss the quiet of the Arctic, it’s immense vastness, the way that the only thing that matters is what you are doing in that moment, and the surprisingly vibrant colors in landscape of all white.
Indea Stroeve Rogers is a recent graduate with a degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology and a minor in Political Science from Fort Lewis College.